Three Reasons Why It’s Old People’s Fault Millennials Don’t #VoteLocal
Last week the Knight Foundation released a scathing report on the record low participation of millennials in local government. Why don’t millennials participate in local elections or care all that much about local issues? They don’t know anything about them. And, as a millennial who works four separate jobs that are all related to local politics, I am going to be very blunt about this: it’s not their fault. It’s the fault of the previous generations. But don’t worry old people, my criticisms may be harsh, but I assure you they will be constructive.
Here are the three core reasons, in my eyes, why millennials lack any knowledge or experience with local government and politics, and thus don’t feel comfortable enough to participate:
- Lack of Civic Education
- Local Government has a Fundamental Audience Problem
- Justified Cynicism is Misplaced (only because of the first two problems)
Lack of Civic Education
This one is actually pretty straight forward: millennials don’t know anything about local government because no one ever taught them about it. Think about it, when you were growing up in school you were taught math and english, some history, physical education, maybe some arts if you were lucky, and yes, government. But what did you actually study? The federal government. You learned that George Washington and his band of freedom loving rebels fought off the evil British crown and created the greatest system of government ever known, as governed by the Constitution and Bill of Rights. But what about community governance? Did you learn what a general plan is? Or how about what zoning is? Of course you didn’t. Neither did we.
I even studied politics and law in college, but never covered local politics. In fact the only reason why I even understand how a planning commission works is because I also studied environmental studies, and we had to research land use issues and permitting. Yet that governs how every single thing is built and operated in every single community!!!!!! It’s an absolutely fundamental concept to understanding the world around us, and it doesn’t even get a footnote is most curriculums.
How is it then in any way surprising that most millennials don’t feel comfortable voting on these types of issues? If I don’t know where my water comes from than what makes you think I would feel comfortable saying yes or no on a hundred million dollar water/sewer bond. What’s worse, if I don’t understand how public financing for capital improvement projects works, I am probably not inclined to support anything.
Here’s the good news, the solution to this problem is as straight forward as the problem itself. Mandate that local civics courses be incorporated into K-12 education. Education leaders seem to have no problem changing the common core standards every five years for the past two decades anyway.
Local Government has a Fundamental Audience Problem
Now this one transcends age, because local government has a hard time reaching anyone with its archaic and ineffective forms of community information sharing and outreach, but the problem is compounded when dealing with those of a younger generation, mainly due to information sources. I will spare you most of the glaring details as this topic has already been covered at length by many different people, most of whom are much more experienced and articulate than I, but the gist of it is that the way government currently communicates with its citizens is opaque and severely outdated.
Probably the best encapsulation of this failure is explained in a TED talk by Dave Meslin, who contrasts how government usually offers a call to action versus that of a private sector company. The example he uses is to compare a public notice of a new development (see below) to that of an advertisement for buying shoes. One has a clear call to action, is accompanied by a picture of what it is proposing, and clearly communicates to the audience how it can engage further. This is anything but what I just described:
And don’t even get me started on having to navigate through various 1990s style websites to find a sideways photocopied site plan saved as a static PDF… Because I can go all day!!!!
But let’s talk about use of media and how that factors into civic participation. To illustrate this concept I will start with an example many of you are probably intimately familiar with. I live in Santa Cruz, which can definitely be considered a college town. Every year when students graduate or move away for the summer you will find our otherwise lovely city streets boasting a plethora of old furniture and mattresses, left by students who frankly have no idea what else to do with them. Every year I hear people complain about this problem, but not once have I ever witnessed the city attempt to reach out to these students in a way that might actually get to them.
For instance, I know that the city gives out special tags every year that I can use to get a free “bulky item pickup” from our trash collection service. I know this because I received them in my water bill, alongside a tacky newsletter that resembles a cheap coupon booklet. But let’s say I am student, who, chances are, lives in near absolute squalor with many other people. I probably don’t pay my own water bill, and am likely to have never seen or heard of this program. Is that my fault?
Now at this point some of you are probably asking about my supposed “constructive” criticism, and don’t worry, it’s coming. But I really want to drive this point home a bit more: if you want to give us information, use the channels that we actually use to receive it.
Countless studies have already demonstrated that young people don’t read the local paper (have any young people besides me ever done this?). So use what we use: Social media, email, advertise at places and events we frequent, etc; really, this isn’t that hard. Hell, I can buy a Facebook ad this second, target it by age, gender, location, and interests, and reach 6,000 people for less than $75.00!!!!
Contrast this with the most recent post made by the City on their Facebook page:
Justified Cynicism is Misplaced (only because of the first two problems)
This last one is a bit more complex, because it involves feelings of trust and some political assumptions, but bear with me. The last major reason that millennials don’t participate locally is because we don’t distinguish between local government and the federal government. To many of us, it’s just the all encompassing “government”. This stems from our lack of civic education and the audience problem. And, in case you haven’t noticed, government as a concept is not winning many popularity contests right now. In fact most most people would rather eat dinner with a family of cockroaches than a member of Congress.
Yes millennials did show up to vote in record numbers in 2008 to elect Obama because, frankly, he inspired us to believe that government could change from what it was perceived as. Seven years later, and regardless of who you blame, not much has happened to change that original perception. And consider this, in our lifetime the cost of higher education has quadrupled, the cost of living has risen substantially while real earnings have either stagnated or declined, no government action has been taken to address climate change (despite an overwhelming majority of millennials believing this to be a core issue), and we have slogged through a financial crisis that has left most of us either chronically under employed or not employed at all.
To put this in context, I was at a political campaigning event yesterday that featured Joe Smitian, a local Supervisor from Palo Alto, as a panelist. Joe, bless his heart, said something I will never forget. “If people are going to trust you as a candidate, and government as a whole, you absolutely need to be able to answer one fundamental question: How has their government improved their life?”
He continued, “if you cannot answer that question then you have no business running for office.” Now I am paraphrasing a bit, but the core message here is pretty obvious: most millennials can’t answer this question. It is because of our lack of civic education, and the government’s inability to communicate, that our justified mistrust of what the federal government has (and hasn’t) done, that makes it so difficult for so many of us to care.
Robert Singleton is the cofounder of Civinomics, an online platform for creating, sharing, and discussing local policy. He also works as a Policy Analyst for the Santa Cruz Business Council, and as the Government Affairs Director for the Santa Cruz County Association of Realtors.